"Our Society Does not Believe in Freedom"

Dan Price's Powerful Keynote at Seattle Tech Talks

Last month, Gravity CEO Dan Price presented the keynote speech at Seattle Tech Talks, a live startup competition on Seattle’s waterfront. Dan was interviewed by the event’s founder, local entrepreneur and talk show host Jeramy Poole, who asked Dan about his purpose and entrepreneurial journey. In a short but powerful presentation, Dan spoke candidly about his mission to address income inequality in the United States and the imperative businesses have to help effect change in a time of increasing—and unprecedented—economic, social, political, and environmental crisis. Below is the full transcript of the talk.

Jeramy Poole: [I’m pleased to introduce Dan Price, the CEO and co-founder of Gravity Payments. Dan, for those who might not be familiar with your company, can you tell us what Gravity does?]

Dan Price:  [Absolutely. Technically speaking, we are in the merchant services and payment processing industry, but fundamentally, we’re all about helping independent businesses compete. In our economy, we have large] companies that are basically trying to use automation technology, trying to use the power that they will politically and through their platform, to crowd out competition. So we’re trying to create and support software that can help independent businesses succeed and be able to focus on creating a great experience for their clients and their employees, and keep that independent ethos that creates such a great experience. I mean, obviously living here in Seattle, there are so many independent businesses that just make our lives better, so our company is all about just trying to help them.

Jeramy: Dan, what reason…why you’ve been featured in the news so much, if you don’t mind me bringing it up, is that you actually were setting out to set the minimum salary for your company for $70,000. Why did you decide to do that?

Dan: Do you want me to answer what I thought at the time or what I think now, because those are two totally different answers?

Jeramy: Let’s talk about right now.

Dan: Right now. So, the situation that we have right now is that the vast majority of income and wealth progress is disproportionately going to fewer and fewer people. And even the tone of the questions tonight, and the way the entrepreneurs had to respond to the questions just to fit in in an environment like this—all of us are predicating our lives and our entrepreneurial journey on an assumption that life is about consolidating, further consolidating wealth and power into the hands of fewer and fewer people. And the questions were all coming from [a place that suggests] that…, obviously, the purpose that we have to be here, is to consolidate wealth and power. But if you look at how successful that’s been and how more and more of the money is going to the people on the top and it’s getting spread out less and less, we are putting people in holes, and we’re pretending that we have a meritocracy to try to justify the immoral behavior that we are promoting and allowing to continue to go as a society. And so we [at Gravity] believe that if somebody is able to make a basic living wage where they can pay their expenses, they have freedom. And, to us, if you have the capability of providing that to your employees—which we were able to build over more than a decade—and you choose not to do it anyway, we consider that to be immoral.

In our opinion, there’s a moral imperative: If you have the ability to allow people that you claim—that I claim—to care about to have true freedom in their life, because they have enough financial means to create that freedom—for us, it was an absolute moral imperative that we had to do it, and to not do it would have been wrong. And I don’t think I really deserve credit for doing it, because it’s more like, I should have deserved condemnation when I wasn’t doing it, which I didn’t receive, and I think that’s where we need to go.

Jeramy: That’s great. That’s fantastic, Dan. Thank you for that. One question that I personally want to ask, I’m not sure if you know this about me, but I’m the host of a talk show called “The Moment,” and I travel the country interviewing some of the top people in real estate. The show is called “The Moment,” in which people have to go through a very difficult time to learn who they are, go through sort of this forging process to become greater than who they were.

I know a little bit about your story, but I’d love for you to tell the audience here some interesting series or a moment in time in which you had to evolve, in which you had to overcome something very, very difficult to reach the point of success where you’re currently at.

Dan: Thanks, Jeramy. That’s a great question. In 2008, when the recession hit, we lost about 20 percent of our revenue in what felt like almost overnight. It was over a course of a few months, and prior to that, I was really happy because we had great relationships with our clients. Our first thousand clients, I knew a majority of them on a first-name basis. I was having these great relationships, I was really enjoying those relationships, and that’s what work was all about for me.

We weren’t really making much money, and I was completely happy. But then the recession hit, and we lost about 20 percent of our revenue, and we went to where we were losing money every month, and we had seven months before we had to close our doors. The obvious way to fix that is what all of our competitors and my peers were advising me to do and doing themselves, which is layoffs, pay cuts, benefit cuts, and also increasing prices to our clients. But for us, doing any of those things would completely destroy the vision of the company that we were trying to create. We weren’t able to take those easy outs, take those quick fixes.

I got everybody together. Well, first I had to look myself in the mirror and deal with anxiety. I used to lay in my bed just for a few minutes, and I would imagine losing everything. At the time, I think we probably had eighty people working at the company, and I would imagine all them losing their jobs. I would imagine me losing everything that I had worked to build. I would also imagine our clients losing the value that we were adding in their lives. But I thought about the experience of all those groups and how we could use that to educate and raise awareness about what we were trying to do and also use it to empower the people that went through [it]. [We] as a community [would get] to experience the destruction of us as a community.

I saw the good in it, and I started to accept that if that was the destiny that I had, if that was the reality that I was going to have, that that could be a redemptive situation, that I could really learn a lot from. Every single one of those people could learn and derive value from that situation.

After that, we had seven months [before the company would go broke]. Five months later, we had turned it around to where we were breaking even again. That was real exciting. Then our largest vendor, which we didn’t have a backup plan for, went bankrupt. We were up against it again. Then a customer had a fraudulent scheme against us to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars that we didn’t have, and they went bankrupt. We had three separate events where there was an 80 percent chance of us going out of business.

Jeramy: That’s tough.

Dan: All within eighteen months. And understanding that sometimes losing everything—I still think to this day my job is to make sure that doesn’t happen, and we don’t lose our community. But to this day, I think, if that happens tomorrow, it would be a good thing for me and a good thing for everybody involved and hopefully rid us of some entitlement and rid us of things that are holding us back from truly moving forward as people and as a company.

Jeramy: That’s huge Dan. Thank you for that. One last question, my man. As somebody who set out to do something great, was able to accomplish some great things as an entrepreneur, [who] started as a startup, and has now built a thriving business, for the startups here, for the entrepreneurs here, what kind of advice or wisdom can you give to them, bestow upon them, that would allow them to go off and achieve their dreams?

Dan: Are there any kids in the room? My advice is don’t fucking take advice from anybody. I realize that sounds like a little bit of contradiction, but I mean that. Now, it’s not about not being humble. I think you should be as humble as possible. You should listen to what everyone says. But at the end of the day, incorporate what they say and decide what you want to incorporate and what you don’t.

There’ve been a few situations in my life where I’ve said, “I’m going to do this because somebody who’s a lot smarter and more experienced than me is telling me I should do it.” I don’t think that’s the way for you to build your business. I don’t think that’s the way for you to even build—’cause each and every one of us, you’re the CEO of your own life. You’re the CEO of your own career, regardless of if you’re a founder. I hope you are a founder.

In doing that, you’re going to make mistakes, but you’ve got to listen to what’s in your heart. I would really try to challenge the conventional wisdom out there. I think that we are, we’re really headed on a path to destruction right now. If you look at that statistic—82 percent of all new wealth created [went] to the top 1 percent last year—what happens if you compound that over 10 or 20 years? Eventually there’s like 1,000 to 1 ratio as the small ratio. We can get to 10,000 or 100,000.

We have Jeff Bezos here, in Seattle, who is literally saying—and I know we’re sponsored by Amazon here, so I’m about to get kicked off stage—but who’s literally saying, “Number one, there’s no possible way I can spend my hundred billion dollars except through space travel, so I’m going to do space travel because I need a way to spend my money.” He’s literally paying people $2[8],000 a year—[that’s] the median income at Amazon, because the warehouse workers [are] the bulk of the workers. They won in the Supreme Court that they’re allowed to make people wait in line for [half an] hour to [undergo a security screening at the end of the day]. The employees were saying, “If I have to be sitting here to do my job, I should be getting paid.” They sued, and the Supreme Court, which is very pro-business and very wealth- and power-centric, ruled in Amazon’s favor and said, “You can make your employees sit there waiting in line through security and you don’t have to be paying them during that time.”

We’re creating a situation where we claim to value freedom, but we’re so caught up in our dogmatic capitalistic ideology that we don’t actually care about freedom. We don’t care about democracy, and we are continuing to consolidate all the wealth and power in the hands of a few. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to know that if this is the situation, everybody’s either going to need security guards walking around them, or [they’re] going to be at the bottom.

By the way, if we continue to double down on this, you will absolutely have to cheat to win. Because when Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France, I mean, what place did the person get that didn’t cheat in that race, do you think? Any guesses?

Audience member 1:      Second?

Jeramy: Seventh? Not second, I guarantee you that.

Audience member 2:     Nineteenth?

Dan: It might be seventy-seventh. None of us know who that person is. Guess what? They probably lost money by competing in that. They couldn’t even make a living. We’ve created a structure that is so imbalanced. Yeah, we need incentives. We might need to have a bit of a curve where, if you’re more successful, you make more. That’s fine. If we create a structure that’s so imbalanced that, if you’re not willing to put money first above everything else, you can’t succeed, like that’s where we’re headed.

We’re not there right now, and I think we can band together as a society. By the way, money doesn’t even exist. It’s a completely fictional thing. It only exists because we decide it exists. If money is not creating freedom and prosperity for the majority of people out there, if we’re continually leaving people behind in the name of capitalism and in the name of, “Well, we don’t want to support these entitled people and all these things,” eventually it’s not hard to see where it’s going. And we have a chance to basically take back our society. Now, I’m not in politics [and] I’m not in government, so I can try to do it in my business. I can do it where I’m sitting. But I think even all the entrepreneurs up here, I think we can push back on our judges, we can push back on our community and say, “Look, I’m not in this for money. I’m not in this for an exit.” And I think we as a society can work together and say, “I’m here to make a difference because, with the way it’s going, money is not gonna solve our problems the way it used to.”

Jeramy: Right on, Dan. Thank you so much for your wise words. Thank you for being there, my man. Let’s all give it a nice round of applause for Dan Price.

Dan: Hey, by the way, I’m trying to have these discussions on LinkedIn and other places. I’d love to connect with people. Here’s the truth. You can tell I have a passion; I’m dedicated this. I’ve been at my business now for sixteen, seventeen years. But I can’t stop working on this. I was doing it very publicly, as I’m sure a lot of you know. I was out there a lot. I didn’t always enjoy that, so I’m trying to do it in more of an indie way. I want feedback, I want people to push me, I want people to tell me where I’m getting the message right, where I’m getting it wrong. So please reach out and engage with me. I really appreciate you all having me here. Thank you.

To connect with Dan and continue the conversation about how businesses can be a force for social change, follow him on LinkedIn.

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